In another time and place in Fort Worth history, City Councilman Jim Bradshaw counseled his colleague on the local government board, Woodie Woods, Fort Worth’s political plumber and one of the town’s more noted political philosophers, as he plotted a run for mayor in the late 1970s.
As it was recounted in those days by a reporter, the encounter went like this:
“You need to drop that ‘conservative,’” ahem, bull hockey, Bradshaw said, “and come up with some terminology that’s more suited to the times. If you look at the way we vote, ‘conservative’ doesn’t exactly fit. Sometimes it’s conservative; sometimes it’s liberal; sometimes maybe it’s a little of both. You need to come up with something better like, ‘will of the people,’ or some phrase like that. You know what I mean. Work on it.”
Potholes are neither Republican nor Democrat. Streetlamps aren’t conservative or modern liberal progressives.
However, the labels are the dominant chords in our politics today, even in a nonpartisan election with no labels. Fort Worth’s ascent up the ladder of America’s biggest cities comes with issues bigger than potholes and lampposts, including transportation, community policing, and relationships between police and people of color. The labels help people identify how a candidate might handle them.
With Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden demonstrating that Fort Worth is in play for progressive Democrats, observers are wondering if that might translate into the election of a candidate who identifies as a progressive Democrat as mayor in 2021, the race to succeed Mayor Betsy Price. Earlier this year, Price declined to seek an unprecedented sixth term.
Democrat heavyweights have lined up to support the candidacy of Deborah Peoples, chairman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, who is vying to become the city’s first Black mayor. She ran well against Price in 2019 with 42% of the vote, despite not having any of the support or money of a powerful incumbent.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas), Democratic Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks, and State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) have all announced they are in Peoples’ corner, as has Democrat Tarrant County Constable Michael Campbell and Aicha Davis, a member of the State Board of Education.
In addition, the national Collective Political Action Committee, which focuses on boosting the candidacies of Black candidates, and the Tarrant County AFL-CIO.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) is expected to make an endorsement in a runoff if it involves one of the two progressive candidates.
Peoples, 68, will be challenged for the progressive vote by Ann Zadeh, who boasts deep roots in Fort Worth neighborhoods as a three-term District 9 councilwoman. Before that, she served six years on the city’s Zoning Commission, appointed by Mayor Mike Moncrief and Price. She served as president of the board for a year.
“That is definitely something people are looking at and monitoring,” Zadeh says of partisan labels. “I think people do care about them. It’s a question you get often. People like to be able to see whether you are of similar ilk to them. I’ll usually not make people track down [the public record]. I’ll answer the question.”
During the campaign, Zadeh has championed the need for city leadership to be “as progressive as possible” to usher it into full communion as a cosmopolitan metropolis standing on its own, not merely next to her big sister to the east.
Peoples has voted in five of the last six Democratic primaries. Zadeh has voted in all of the past six Democratic primaries. Peoples is being advised by NextWave Strategies, a campaign consulting firm that boosted Democrat Sylvester Turner to the mayorship of Houston. Zadeh has hired Compete Everywhere, LLC, a digital marking firm for “Democrats and progressives.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that a runoff is inevitable with so many candidates, 10 in all, featuring either Peoples or Zadeh and Brian Byrd or Mattie Parker, considered the Republican candidates. Byrd and Parker have voted in each of the past six Republican primaries.
Parker, a former aide to Price and the council, enjoys all the support eventual mayoral winners have. She is supported by the city’s business and political classes as well as the Fort Worth Police Association and Fort Worth Firefighters Association. In addition to Price’s support, Parker has also been endorsed by Moncrief, a lifelong Democrat.
Price’s coattails alone are big enough to launch Parker to victory, says Allen Saxe, a retired professor of political science at UT Arlington.
Both Parker, 37, and Zadeh have made a point of campaigning on rising above partisan rancor and division.
Peoples, who has taken on issues within the city for years as an activist, is running on a message of bringing traditionally underserved neighborhoods of people of color to full representation at City Hall and in harmony with the Police Department. The tragic shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson by Officer Aaron Dean is the most recent high-profile incident dogging police departments across the country.
Peoples says that in working with people of color over the years, she discovered that issues that mattered most to them were local.
“That is when I said I need to run for mayor,” she said during a livestreaming appearance on The Collective. “Much can be done to improve the lives of people of color if we have progressive leaders who care. That is an immediate win for citizens of color and particularly African Americans. We have whole areas of the city that have been systemically ignored. A lot can be done to focus on underperforming neighborhoods to get them back on track. More importantly, we have this incredibly diverse city. We actually are a majority minority city. We need to have boards and commissions and leadership teams that look like us.”
Her campaign mantra, One Fort Worth, she describes as all boats rising with the tide. She has said, based on her experience in the corporate world with AT&T, the key to attracting business and encouraging badly needed economic development in the city is the city’s diversity.
That’s an inclusive vision, and she won’t get any argument from Zadeh, Byrd, or Parker, who have expressed their support for initiatives to improve attention to diversity and equity.
“I am running for Fort Worth mayor to help every neighborhood in every part of our city thrive and prosper,” Zadeh has said. “Not one family should be left behind.”
Byrd launched his campaign from the traditionally Black Como neighborhood on the west side.
“Too many of our talented African American and Latino kids move away from Fort Worth for college and don’t come back because they don’t feel welcome,” says Byrd, 50. “And I don’t blame them. They don’t see people who look like them in the business district.”
Byrd pointed to his work on the City Council. Since 2017, he has been the representative of District 3. During that time, he says, he has worked to make improvements to the Las Vegas Trail corridor on the west side. It is one of those neighborhoods Peoples talks about being “systemically ignored.”
Collaborating with the Fort Worth school district, the city, led by Byrd, worked to bring IDEA charter school to the area. Since its first graduating class in 2007, 100% of IDEA’s graduating seniors have been accepted to colleges and universities nationwide, according to the school’s literature.
“We had a fair amount of success in the Las Vegas Trail area by recruiting a reputable charter school that has placed 100% of kids in college or vocational school. And 55% of those who go to college graduate.
“The mayor can continue to shine a light on education challenges.”
Byrd, a doctor and businessman, also has lobbied successfully to bring millions of dollars to Como and took the lead on setting up a mentoring program for young African American and Hispanic businessmen and women trying scale up their business. The program connects them with CEO-level management figures in the business district.
The mother’s milk of elections is turnout, of course. Whether Fort Worth’s next mayor is a man, woman, Black, brown, white, red, or blue depends on who shows up. The city has a woeful history of voter turnout for municipal elections. To wit, about 9% of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot in 2019.
“I think the engagement we’re witnessing with the number of people who have filed to be candidates in this election [has resulted] in the engagement we’ve had the last several years,” Zadeh says. “I don’t know that, that equates into people showing up. I hope that it does. We should have as much engagement in the voting process as possible.”
They likely also have to show up twice, for a runoff.
There is also the concern, Zadeh noted, of voter fatigue. People tired of the ugliness and bitterness of politics, often the result of, well, those labels.
Like Parker, Steve Penate is 37 years old. That’s about where the similarities end. Penate was a political unknown when he entered the race, jumping in with both feet. The real estate broker and a founding pastor of Mercy Culture Church would have made the Rev. J. Frank Norris a fan.
Penate says he is running to bring Christian, conservative values back to public life. Penate has been outspoken about not supporting an LGBTQ agenda.
It’s a message that has appeal if his rallies are any indication. Hundreds of people have turned out to support him, according to videos he shares on Facebook. He has also routinely won the unscientific “straw polls” published on Fort Worth Facebook pages.
The church constituency is territory already staked out by Byrd, who is quick to remind that he was a member of Cru — Campus Crusade for Christ International — while in school at the University of Texas, as well a campus leader for Young Life.
He and his wife, Stephanie, have worked for years as area coordinators for Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Ministry, which serves children of incarcerated parents. In 2012, he joined the national board of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
A physician, Byrd was part of the medical teams in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the devastating earthquake in 2010. He and daughter Allison served as relief workers in Greece, serving refugee families from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria.
Despite that kind of life of service, some of the “church” voters have said they prefer Penate to Byrd.
A recent example was a Facebook post that said Byrd had “strayed from his Christian upbringing” and that the poster could no longer support a man who supports “gay and lesbian” and Black Lives Matter agendas. She said she could only support a candidate with “firm Biblical beliefs.”
His response was Christ-like.
“It is important for the mayor to lead with the understanding that the mayor is the mayor for everyone in this town,” Byrd said. “I don’t care what status anyone has or what color they are. I want everybody who lives in Fort Worth to run after their dreams and get there. I want to help them get there. I don’t make distinctions based on LGBTQ status or skin color.
“I want them to be successful. That’s my position. That’s how I lead on that, and if people don’t like that and want to vote for someone else because they don’t like my message, then I can’t do anything about that. I think it’s very important that every mayor lead with that approach.”
One political insider said that internal campaign polls show no path of victory for Penate, but he can play the spoiler by taking away votes, particularly from Byrd.
The Top 5
Brian Byrd Brian Byrd is an Arlington Heights graduate who left for the University of Texas and later medical school but returned to the city to practice family medicine before building and growing businesses in the medical field that he eventually sold.
He turned to public service in 2017, winning a seat on the City Council out of District 3. He also enjoys the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), a former mayor of Fort Worth.
Byrd, who had raised more than $245,000 as of April 1, says his focus as mayor would be on economic development and attracting high-paying jobs, education and a job-ready workforce, police and public safety, and efficient government and lowering property taxes.
“The mayor can continue to shine a light on education challenges. The mayor has a duty to continue to put the right sort of attention on it in a way that tells the hardworking folks at the [Fort Worth school district] that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them trying to reach the goals we all want to reach.”
He boasts as achievements on the council the facilitation of the establishment of IDEA Rise charter school in the Las Vegas Trail corridor, as well as a mentorship program for minority entrepreneurs.
Byrd, 50, and wife Stephanie are the parents of three grown children.
Mattie Parker Parker, the former chief of staff to Mayor Betsy Price and on the City Council for five years, entered the month of April with the Big Mo — momentum.
She turned in a campaign finance report with receipts showing contributions approaching $654,000, far and away the leader among her peers in fundraising. She also enjoyed the endorsements of outgoing Mayor Betsy Price, her former boss; former Mayor Mike Moncrief; as well as establishment figures Ramona and Lee Bass, Sid Bass, Dee Kelly Jr., and former Democratic Congressman Pete Geren, the District 12 successor to Jim Wright in the U.S. Congress.
Parker, 37, also secured the coveted public support of the Police Officers Association and the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Local 440.
In addition to her role as chief of staff for the city, Parker was district director and campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, chief of staff for State Rep. Phil King of Weatherford, and an assistant for former Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Parker likes to say that she has been “endorsed by the people she does life with. I was the person you called to find solutions in Washington, the city, and Austin.”
As Fort Worth mayor, she says, “I will bring the same tenacity of leadership and experience.”
Her public policy priorities include inclusiveness, public policy, economic development, and education.
Steve Penate Penate was an unknown political newcomer when he announced his candidacy, but he has proven capable of moving the masses the way a preacher moves congregations.
That’s probably because he is a church pastor at Mercy Church in Oakhurst.
Penate, a real estate broker, has branded himself as a “Christian, conservative, and small-business owner.”
His priorities include small-business growth, incentivizing corporations to relocate to Fort Worth, lowering property taxes, education, and public safety.
According to his application for inclusion on the ballot for mayor, Penate and his wife have lived in Fort Worth for two years after moving from Arizona. It was there that he became a regular on social media pitching real estate on “The Steve Talks Real Estate Show.”
Penate, born in Los Angeles, is unabashedly pro-police but has said he has witnessed police overreach in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where he grew up.
“I have friends that have had very hard experiences with police officers,” Penate, a graduate of Arizona State University, said in an interview with Texas Scorecard.
Deborah Peoples Peoples has been an advocate for the concerns of predominantly African American Fort Worth neighborhoods for decades, including organizing the march at the Tarrant County Courthouse to protest the unjust sentence of probation for Christopher Brosky, the avowed white supremacist who killed a Black man in Arlington.
“This sends a clear message that people want some change,” Peoples said at the time after convening the African American Summit on Peace, Justice and Equality. “We want to bring justice back to life.”
She, along with her sister Maryellen Hicks, has been tireless since, most recently seeking progress through the formal political process. She is seeking the office of mayor from her perch as the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair. If elected, she would become the first Black mayor in Fort Worth history, and it would come 54 years after Dr. Edward Guinn became the first Black member of the City Council.
Today, she is touting her experience as an activist and unifier and business executive, retiring as a vice president of AT&T after 30 years of service, as why she is the most qualified to become the next mayor of her hometown.
Her personal mantra: Much is given, much is expected.
Ann Zadeh Zadeh is the only candidate who could work in the city’s Planning Department. Zadeh earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning from UT Arlington and achieved status as a certified planner by the American Institute of Certified Planners.
Before election to the City Council representing District 9 in 2014, she served on the Zoning Commission for six years, initially appointed by Mayor Mike Moncrief and reappointed by Mayor Betsy Price. She was elected chair of the commission in her last year of service.
She promotes that service as an important element to her campaign — a thorough knowledge of Fort Worth’s neighborhoods.
“The mayor’s job is not politics,” Zadeh said in campaign literature. “The mayor’s job is to ensure that the city of Fort Worth is run in the most efficient, effective, and professional manner possible.
“The job is to protect the residents and taxpayers of Fort Worth and make sure that every single person in Fort Worth has all the opportunities this city has to offer: a safe community, a clean city, housing they can afford, a job that affords them a fair and livable wage, a quality education for their children, and equal access to all that this city has to offer.”
Zadeh, who received her undergraduate degree from University of California Santa Cruz, has been a Fort Worth resident for more than 30 years. She and her husband, Jim, live in the Bluebonnet Hills neighborhood.
The Long Shots
Among the scrum of players seeking to replace Betsy Price are a handful who wake up every day openly refusing to abide by the august sports adage that instructs that winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.
They are the longest of the long shots of those vying to win the city’s highest elected office, all looking up at an Everest-like climb in San Francisco fog.
No one, however, will challenge their will to win and serve the city they dearly love.
“Elections are not always about winning,” says Cedric Kanyinda, 35, an information technology engineer for Hewlett Packard, who acknowledged his underdog campaign lacks the network and financial support of the tier-one candidates. “But I always say, all authority comes from God, and if God is willing, that is where you will end up. If it is the will of God for you to become mayor and make Fort Worth a better place, it will happen.”
Fort Worth would be a better place, Kanyinda says, if it more resembled its peers among the 13 largest cities in the country. Specifically, that is better public transportation and infrastructure as well as universities needed to attract private investment and enterprise.
“Fort Worth is trending to become the 12th biggest city in America, but it doesn’t feel like it,” he says.
Of the tier-two candidates, only Kanyinda and Chris Rector filed the required campaign finance reports 30 days prior to the election. Neither received any contributions in either money or material, according to their respective reporting. Rector reported spending $100, the filing fee to appear on the ballot.
Kanyinda said in an interview that he has spent $9,000 of his own money on the campaign, far and away the most of the lesser-known candidates.
“I haven’t spent any money,” says Mike Haynes, 32, a homegrown Fort Worth guy who graduated from Polytechnic High School in 2006. “I don’t believe in spending money on my campaign because everybody already knows me.”
Haynes, who is making a second run for mayor, owns Haynes Distribution Hub and is active in the community working with young people. As mayor, he wants to improve the city’s pay structure so as to attract a better workforce within the municipal offices.
Rector says he believed the mayor and city council “has lost its way,” pointing to the financing of $100 million to buy a new city hall while residents struggle financially through the pandemic.
“I’m no politician,” says Rector, a 58-year-old disabled veteran who also had a career as a police officer in Tennessee. “I’m just an everyday, blue-collar regular Joe, but I’ve dedicated my life to public service.”
The campaign for mayor is merely the most recent for “DC” Daniel Caldwell, 36. He has run previously for Board of Trustees of Austin Community College, the Dallas City Council, justice of the peace in Harris County, as well as a flirtation with a run for the Tarrant County Commissioners Court. The pandemic caused a detour on the latter.
He is running as a unifier, noting his membership with the NAACP as well as the founder of The Federalist Society branch, a pro-Republican think tank, at Texas Southern’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law while he was a student there.
“I’m trying to do something good and worthwhile,” Caldwell says. “It’s not about me. The ends justify the means, but the means are an end unto themselves. I’m trying to connect, trying to integrate, trying to get people unified and together. Participating in the discussion does that.”